Detroit Tigers: 5 Things They Must Improve ASAP to Close Out Series Against A's
The Detroit Tigers swept the Oakland Athletics in the first two games of the American League Division Series at Comerica Park, and are now just one victory away from advancing to their second-consecutive AL Championship.
But the Tigers were far from perfect in two games against the A's and were in jeopardy of traveling to Oakland with a 1-1 tie, with three possible road games remaining in the series.
The Tigers managed to come away from the first two games of the 2012 playoffs unscathed, but if Detroit wants to continue its success and defeat Oakland, there are several things the Tigers need to improve on.
Both teams have an off day on Monday as the series shifts to Oakland for Game 3 on Tuesday, and if necessary, Game 4 on Wednesday and Game 5 on Thursday.
But the Tigers don't want to let the Athletics, who had to fight all season to make the postseason, hang around.
Here are the five things the Tigers must improve upon to close out the series against the A's:
Production from Prince
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In the first two games of the series, Prince Fielder has gone 1-for-8 with one strikeout and one walk.
Fielder went 0-for-4 in Game 1, failing to reach base for the first time in 12 games.
In the third inning of Game 2, he earned a hit that led to the Tigers' first run of the game, but he finished the game 1-for-4 with a walk and a strikeout.
Fielder finished the regular season with the best average of his career, and with the dominance of Miguel Cabrera, Fielder's role becomes even more important as the playoffs continue.
Cabrera earned three hits in Game 2, and Oakland might start to consider pitching around him if Fielder continues to struggle.
If Fielder can produce in Game 3, and the rest of the playoffs for that matter, teams won't be able to pitch around the Triple Crown winner, and the Tigers are that much more dangerous in the postseason.
Hitting with Runners in Scoring Postion
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The Tigers had several opportunities in both games to score more runs and make either game easier on themselves, but failed to score with runners in scoring position.
The Tigers combined to hit 3-for-15 with RISP the first two games of the series, going 2-for-7 with RISP in Game 1—with Quintin Berry earning both of those hits—and going 1-for-8 as a team in Game 2.
Austin Jackson has had the most empty opportunities, going 0-for 3 with RISP in the series, while Fielder and Cabrera have each gone 0-for-2.
The Tigers could have blown Game 1 wide open on Saturday, with the bases loaded in the first inning, but Cabrera bounced into a double play—which scored a run—and Fielder flied out to end the inning.
Fielder failed to convert with a RISP again in the third inning, and the Tigers failed twice with runners threatening in the seventh.
Fielder was the only Tiger who converted with a RISP in Game 2, but his hit didn't drive in a run. The Tigers struggled, offensively, for most of the game and were in danger of blowing two different leads, almost allowing the Athletics to even the series.
The Tigers need to take advantage of the opportunities they have because as the postseason continues, runs will be at even more a premium, and each victory becomes substantially more difficult.
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The Tigers' bullpen performed exactly as it should in Game 1, with Joaquin Benoit pitching a scoreless eighth inning, giving up just one hit, and Jose Valverde retiring all three batters he faced in the ninth.
But in Game 2, the wheels almost fell off.
Benoit entered in the eighth inning—again with a lead—and allowed a single, two stolen bases, threw a wild pitch and gave up a home run, allowing the A's to take a 4-3 lead.
Phil Coke began the ninth and allowed a walk and a hit, giving Oakland even more hope, after the Tigers tied the game in the bottom of the eighth.
After pinch-hitter Derek Norris struck out to open the ninth, Cliff Pennington got a hold of a pitch and ripped it into the left field seats. The ball landed just foul, and Coke avoided disaster. He walked Pennington and got Coco Crisp to ground into a fielder's choice before giving up the hit to Stephen Drew, and giving way to Al Alburquerque.
Alburquerque came in and shut the last hitter down, but the Tigers bullpen made Game 2 a roller coaster ride.
With Anibal Sanchez, who is the Tigers' least-proven starter, starting Game 3, Detroit will probably need to depend on its bullpen to close out the game again.
The bullpen needs to step up to close out the series as soon as possible, and will need to continue to improve if the Tigers hope to advance to the World Series.
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After the grind of an 162-game regular season, it must be tough to stay 100 percent, mentally, but in crucial playoff games where every pitch matters and runs are at a premium, players have to stay sharp and avoid mental mistakes.
In Game 2, Benoit made a couple of mental mistakes which could've cost the Tigers the game.
After allowing a single to Yoenis Cespedes, Benoit forgot about Cespedes on the base paths. The A's left fielder, who had 16 stolen bases in the regular season, stole second and proceeded to easily swipe third, without a throw, a couple pitches later.
Rattled by the mental errors, Benoit threw a wild pitch to Josh Reddick, allowing Cespedes to score and tie the game at 3. Rattled even more, Benoit missed his spot on a 3-2 pitch to Reddick, and the A's right fielder, who was 0-for-6 in the series at the time, hit a go-ahead home run.
The Tigers managed to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth, making Benoit the happiest player in the ballpark, but as the Tigers closed out the top of the ninth, another player made a mental mistake.
Alburquerque came on in the ninth and got Cespedes to hit a weak ground ball right back to the mound. Alburquerque fielded it, kissed the baseball and looked over at Cespedes before throwing over to Fielder at first base.
The play was definitely something that irked the A's, and it even got them talking about it after the game.
"We didn't appreciate that," Reddick said to Fox Sports Detroit's Dave Hogg. "I thought it was immature and not very professional. You don't do that on the field."
The last thing you want to do in a playoff series is give a struggling opponent some extra motivation to beat you. The A's have a cross-country flight to stew about Alburquerque's taunt, and will have an opportunity to rectify it in Game 3.
Using the Bench
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Tigers manager Jim Leyland's use of Detroit's bench was brutal in Game 2.
Leyland elected to have Don Kelly and Danny Worth pinch run for Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta, respectively, on back-to-back singles. He had Quintin Berry pinch hit for Avisail Garcia and Alex Avila hit for Gerald Laird, leaving Detroit's bench almost bare.
None of the moves worked out at the time, and hindsight is 20-20, but it could've cost the Tigers in later situations.
Don Kelly, who became the hero in the bottom of the ninth, was forced to hit with the game on the line. He was forced to hit because the Tigers didn't have anyone else eligible.
Kelly got the job done, but you'd rather not have a .182 hitter, with one home run and seven RBI's, be forced to hit in the ninth inning of a postseason game, with the series possibly on the line.